The UK Medical Research Council (MRC) is to invest £20 million in the Farr Institute, an independent new centre devoted to research into health informatics.
The Farr Institute (named for the leading nineteenth century epidemiologist William Farr) will build on £19 million existing funding that supports four e-health informatics research centres (eHIRCs) from a combination of government Research Councils, health departments and medical research charities, doubling investment in health informatics in the UK. With major centres in London, Dundee, Manchester and Swansea, the new institute will link research from medical, population and computer scientists based at nineteen UK universities.
This will examine methods for storage, processing and analysis of different kinds of large datasets to facilitate medical and pharmaceutical research, hopefully leading to new developments in the prediction, prevention and treatment of disease. The Institute will reportedly undertake public engagement to ensure that concerns about privacy are met and that the purposes and potential benefits of research are clear.
Announcing the new funding, which represents a doubling of investment in health informatics in the UK, Minister for Science and Universities the Rt Hon David Willetts said: “Harnessing 'big data' in the NHS will revolutionise healthcare. The Farr institute will bring together highly skilled medical and computer scientists, to use electronic health records to improve understanding of a range of diseases. It will attract pharmaceutical and IT industry investment”.
Comment: A 2011 report from the PHG Foundation identified the current lack of capacity in bioinformatics for the analysis of genome sequence data as the single greatest barrier to implementation of genomics within the NHS, so the issue applies to clinical practice as well as pure research. Developing new methods of handling big data, if combined with training of a new and greatly enlarged cadre of health informaticians, could prevent this bottleneck and speed movement into a new era of e-health. It has been suggested that new technologies to facilitate data sharing and interrogation could support a new and more sustainable model for the NHS, one where patients are able to play a more active role in their own health and social care.